University of Leicester professor speaks to Government Select Committee about alternative to antibiotics

University of Leicester’s Professor of Microbiology Martha Clokie, spoke to MPs about the potential use of phages to fight bacterial infections.

Professor Clokie, was invited to speak to the Science and Technology Committee in the House of Commons on Wednesday, 8 February about the antimicrobial potential of bacteriophages.

Phages are viruses that specifically infect bacteria and can be used as an alternative to antibiotics.

The discussion comes amid increasing evidence that antibiotics are becoming less effective at treating bacterial infections.

Professor Clokie was invited to speak on the topic as the founder and Director of the Centre for Phage Research, based at the University of Leicester.

The Centre is the first of its kind in the UK to be dedicated to phage research and makes the University of Leicester the country’s leading institution in its field.

Professor Clokie, alongside Professor Cath Rees (University of Nottingham) and Professor Joanne Santini (University College London), was questioned on the safety of phages as well as the barriers that have stopped them from being adopted in Western countries and the UK strengths in bacteriophage research and development.

Phage therapy was adopted in the Soviet Union but never fully embraced elsewhere. This is mainly because antibiotics are easier to make, store and prescribe.

Although one type of antibiotic can kill a variety of bacteria, phages can only infect a narrow range of bacteria, usually just one type. This makes prescribing the right phage for a specific infection more difficult than prescribing an antibiotic.

However, the increasing prevalence of superbugs that are resistant to antibiotics means that they are becoming less effective over time.

The specificity and complexity of phages means that they could be incredibly useful when it comes to fighting ever-evolving microorganisms that make us sick. 

Professor Clokie and the Centre for Phage Research want to establish a UK Phage BioBank to curate phage and host bacterial isolates with well-characterised properties, behaviours and verified genomic data.

This would allow researchers to gain a mechanistic understanding of phage biology to identify and develop the most effective phages with relevant 'attributes' for phage therapy.

Clinical trials of phage therapy are also yet to be conducted in the UK, although it is widely used in Georgia and has been used in specific cases in Poland, Belgium and the United States to treat humans.

Talking about what is needed to be able to implement phage therapy into healthcare more widely, Professor Clokie said: “Clinical trial data is needed to show unequivocally that phages are useful – currently obtaining these data has been limited by a framework designed for chemical compounds rather than phages.

“Addressing this framework and capitalising on our ability to fully characterise phages means that we have a second chance at being able to address antimicrobial resistance and maintain the expectations of modern medicine.”

On being asked to speak to the Science and Technology Committee, Professor Clokie added: “It was a privilege to speak to the Committee – the MPs were fully engaged and keen to understand what policy changes the Government could make to facilitate the development of this much-needed technology.”